- Kenneth Lin is founder and CEO of Credit Karma, a personal finance company that was sold to Intuit for a whopping $8.1 billion dollars in one of the biggest fintech deals of 2020.
- In this personal op-ed, he says joining with Intuit felt like dating at first, and it took months of “dating more seriously” to decide on the acquisition.
- Lin shares four of the most important lessons he learned after making the biggest decision of his career.
- Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.
When I first moved to the Bay Area in 2004, I was instantly drawn to the startup ecosystem and, like many founders, I couldn’t resist the urge to build something that would have an impact.
At the time, I was running my own performance marketing agency and scheduling regular coffee meet-ups with friends and colleagues to run through other business ideas on the side.
Each week for the better part of a year, you could find me at a Bay Area Starbucks bouncing ideas off of people to see what might stick. This was a humbling process, one that required persistence, vulnerability and a bit of thick skin.
After countless Starbucks conversations and dozens of “duds”, the idea for Credit Karma hit.
This idea certainly had the most fanfare among my colleagues, mentors and friends, but here’s what made it really stick: it combined my existing interest and years of experience in the financial services industry with my passion for making financial services more equitable for all.
Without those components, I don’t know if we’d be where we are today — a $8.1 billion company that was just acquired by Intuit.
In a lot of ways, deciding to join forces with Intuit felt like dating.
One of the first conversations between the CEO and me took place at a Bay Area park equidistant from our respective homes.
When we arrived, neither of us had cell service so we spent the first 30 minutes trying to locate each other. What felt like a clumsy start to a first date led to a fruitful conversation about our potential future together. From there, we spent months “dating more seriously,” getting to know each other and discussing how our businesses could work together to deliver on our shared mission of championing financial progress for all.
Ultimately, the decision came down to one thing: impact.
By teaming up with Intuit, I believe we’ll be able to accelerate our product roadmap and deliver on our mission faster and with more resources than ever before.
This decision wasn’t made overnight and neither was the success of Credit Karma. For those just starting out, here’s what I learned about business — and myself — along the way.
1. There’s no blueprint for the perfect CEO
Like others who start to ascend in their careers, I spent much of my early years at Credit Karma feeling a bit like an imposter. I remember thinking other CEOs seemed so confident in their understanding of the marketplace and the sophistication of their technology.
Meanwhile, I was putting together IKEA desks and hoping I could make payroll.
To combat this feeling, I studied up on the prototypes of other successful CEOs who came before me, devouring books by the likes of Jack Walsh and Tony Hsieh, and adopted their leadership styles as my own.
However, something about this didn’t feel right to me. I later realized there really isn’t a playbook for becoming a successful business leader and, while you can learn a lot from other entrepreneurs, the key to success is specific to each person.
2. It takes time to get comfortable in your own skin
About five years ago I started to realize the leadership styles I was learning about and attempting to incorporate into my work weren’t my own and they weren’t authentic to me.
I had to regularly remind myself that my passion for the work, combined with my experience in the industry, made me uniquely qualified to make strategic decisions for the business. The more comfortable I got with this, the more comfortable I felt in my own skin and as a leader.
What’s more, I found that by relying on my own instincts to make decisions and solve problems, I was able to enjoy my role more and feel like I was pretending less.
For me, the trick was relying more on context and really learning to trust my gut.
3. It’s all about execution
After spending countless hours at coffee shops bouncing ideas off of friends and doing a ton of research of my own, I’ve realized no matter how good your idea is, it has likely already been conceived.
Even now, when doing research for my philanthropic ventures through the Henry Crown Fellowship, I’m reminded nearly every idea has already been thought of.
Don’t let this discourage you.
Instead, focus on how you’re going to execute. You could have the most generic idea, but if you execute it better than others, you’ll be successful. I’m a firm believer that 90% of success is execution, the idea is only 10%.
4. Stay true to your mission and don’t give up
Credit Karma was started in 2007, ahead of the last recession. When the markets crashed in 2008, virtually all of our advertising partners pulled off of the platform, putting our entire business at risk.
Despite concerns about the future, we chose to focus our attention on building great products that deliver on our mission of championing financial progress for all. This paid off in spades.
Here’s my advice to founders who are trying to navigate the current economic fallout from COVID: trust your instincts and focus on building products that solve real problems for people, the rest, including profit, will follow.